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West Coast Dance Visits Atlanta

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Push Dance Company, courtesy Ferst Center for the Arts.

On February 7 and 8, the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech gave Atlanta two experimental evenings of dance featuring San Francisco’s Push Dance Company. When ticket-holders arrived, they bypassed the theatre seating and were ushered onto the stage, which was ringed with chairs. Seating the audience onstage with the dancers gave theatre-goers the opportunity to be a part of the action: to see the flying sweat, watch the muscles work, and communicate closely with performers dancing only a foot or two away. Artistic Director Raissa Simpson commented that she likes to bring dance to the people. “Dance is often so far away from the audience,” she commented, pointing to the empty house.

Most of the time, we get companies from the East Coast, so having a West Coast ensemble in our town is a treat. The company of six dancers is young and enthusiastic. They do not have stereotypical dancer bodies or a company standard; each dancer is built very differently and has an individual way of moving. The choreographer uses their individuality to advantage. Although there were three men and three women dancing in Atlanta, the dances were rarely symmetrical. The dancers are technically strong, but they do not indulge in pyrotechnics. The movement is simple and grounded. The choreography draws from various dance styles and fuses them into a unique language used consistently throughout the six works we saw February 8. The approximately 70 people in the audience were seated on 3 sides of the stage; depending where each person was seated, the performance was a different one. It was a new take on “chance dance.” It would be interesting to revisit the performance from a different seat.

Push Dance Company, courtesy Ferst Center for the Arts.

The concert opened with “In the Same Place,” a series of solo dances performed in center stage. The piece was based on thematic variations that continued across the segments, with a repetitive musical score underpinning the movement. Each of the solos faced a different portion of the audience, a choreographic device used specifically for this performance and this space. The company often performs installations in unusual locations for dance. Next, the dancers will be in a three-story art museum, utilizing its stairways and performing at a distance from the audience. The choreography will have to be re-shaped for the new arena. While all live performance art is unique, the dance we saw will absolutely never be  the same again.

My favorite piece was “Bitter Melon,” a work that explores the parallels between the experiences of the Filipino community during the Philippine-American War and the African-American community in the 1927 Great Flood of Mississippi. The dancers, clothed in blue, began by creating visual waves. At times the whole ensemble moved together, at other times each dancer was seeking out his or her own interpretation of the events. This was the evening’s most polished piece, and, I thought, the most intentional.

There were no sets, although the company does use them for other pieces. Costuming was minimal. We were so close we could see body piercings under shirts and tiny wrinkles in hems. Occasionally the costumes distracted from the movement: I sometimes caught myself following the buckle on the back of a vest, a loose end of a belt, or the edge of a pair of shorts under a tunic. But most of the time, they allowed a clear view of the bodies and did not seem to interfere with the dancers’ abilities to move.

None of the pieces had a true conclusion. Instead, they trailed off into darkness or stillness. Even the music seemed to just fade rather than achieving closure. At first, the lack of endings bothered me, but, as the evening progressed, I began to see this device as a way to allow the dance to stay with the audience. We were permitted to choose our own ending, in a way. We could determine that the dance was finished at the point the music and lights faded, or we could imagine it continuing in the way one might design an ending to a dream after waking up in the middle. Combined with the improvisational elements present in each dance, this contrived to make the dances seem like living entities instead of historical reproductions.

I have only two real complaints about dance concerts at the Ferst Center. There are never enough of them. And they are rarely well enough attended. Come on, Atlanta! Pilobolus will be returning to the Ferst Center in April, and the company is always thrilling.

Dance

“20/20:Visionary”: Looking Back, Looking Forward

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Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Last weekend (March 18-20) the Atlanta Ballet gifted the city with “20/20: Visionary,” three pieces, including a world premiere, presented at the Cobb Energy Center.

The world premiere, “Playground,” by British choreographer Douglas Lee, belied its name by being a shadowy piece danced between upright, rolling chalkboard set pieces. Prepared for a lighthearted, joyful expression of childhood, I was surprised that the work instead exposed the darker side of childhood memories. There were some light moments, such as the towering billboard inscribed with multiple lines reading, “Jackie must remember the steps” – clearly a humorous aside about Jackie Nash, one of the most capable company members and perhaps the quickest study in rehearsal. There were some easily-seen choreographic devices–a lot of theme and variation, even more pushing around of set pieces–but there were a few exceptional moments as well, including intricate, slow-motion manipulation of a dancer’s body by another dancer.

Pen-Yu Chen & Tara Lee in “Boiling Point.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The opening work, “Boiling Point,” by Darrell Grand Moultrie, was playfully performed at breakneck speed. Dancers are often told to “make it look easy,” and the company took that concept to heart. Highlighted against the men in black costumes, the women wore bits of metallic fabric, providing splashes of intense color and exposing powerful bodies with long muscles. The piece began with the stage space open almost to its fullest, and the dancers running across like a rushing river. They rolled, twisted, turned, and slid like water itself. The choreography juxtaposed synchronicity with counterpoint, traditional with innovation. There was a gargouillade, rarely seen even in classical ballets. The lines of the bodies were critical to the piece, and often layers deep. The flow was almost nonstop, with only an occasional flick of a wrist or toss of a head to provide momentary stasis. The standout was Christian Clark, who sometimes nearly managed to integrate himself into the group but then something distinctive and powerful in his dancing drew the eye to him again.

“Red Clay” from “Home in 7.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

“Home in 7,” a work by Amy Siewert, closed the concert. A portrait of Atlanta, the ballet was a rich tapestry woven from music, spoken word, and movement. Performed in 7 segments to a libretto written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and an intriguing, haunting string score composed and performed by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the dance, too, was a poem, shimmering like summer moonlight on the Chattahoochee. John Welker opened the ballet with tiny explosions of movement “Secrets.” Perhaps the most enchanting segment was “Home of the Braves:” 5 men using baseball imagery, holding their formation as they slid precisely between pitches and catches. “Red Clay” evoked August nights, intolerance, and redemption—Atlanta history, a story familiar to many. I first saw this ballet in 2011, and it has grown in depth as the dancers have matured technically and emotionally. Atlanta loves its ballet company, and never more than when it showcases its home city.

John McFall is ending his tenure with the company at the end of this season. For newcomers to Atlanta Ballet offerings, this will have been a dynamic performance. For long-time supporters, it will have been an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. There are a couple more opportunities to see the company under his watch, and then he will pass the torch to Gennadi Nedvigin, the company’s fourth artistic director. Stay tuned!

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Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Enchants

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© Laura Christian

This year, the Atlanta Ballet marks the 20th anniversary of Artistic Director John McFall’s “The Nutcracker.” Attendance is a familiar holiday season tradition for many area families, who line up to see the changes and improvements that occur each year. While the story of the young girl who receives a Nutcracker-who-comes-to-life is familiar to thousands of ballet fans, there are many versions. The Atlanta Ballet’s production is richly designed and elegantly danced.

Originally a failure in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, “The Nutcracker” is now a holiday staple in the United States. Nobody dances it any better than the Atlanta Ballet, and nobody loves it more than a matinee house full of children! Whether they are watching their peers on-stage; hearing the Georgia Youth Choir singing in the Snow scene from the boxes; absorbing the live music from the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra in the pit; laughing with joy at Mother Matrushka’s children, emerging from under her skirts; screaming with glee at the capering Chinese Dragon; or reaching far above their heads to capture a snowflake, the children are enraptured for the two-plus hours the ballet is on the stage—and the adults are mesmerized right beside them.

Mother Matrushka in Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

There are some elements of this version of the ballet that are not my favorites, but the dancers didn’t make that list. Casting is impeccable, and, for me, part of the excitement of revisiting the old standby is seeing the dancers mature, improve, and demonstrate new abilities. The other part is watching the children captivated by the allure of the Fabulous Fox Theatre, the live music, the dancers, and the dancing—and being enthralled myself.

My list of this year’s positives goes like this:

John McFall has to contend with decreasing audience attention spans as we move further into the age of technology, and he tweaks Act I each year to make it more exciting. It is fast-paced. You may want to see the ballet more than once to catch everything! The foreshadowing during Act I was clear and well-conceived, and had the audience eagerly anticipating the return of the dancers to the stage after intermission.

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Kurtis Blow and the Hip Hop Nutcracker

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A holiday mash-up for the entire family, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a contemporary work set to Tchaikovsky’s timeless music, embarks on an international tour on the strength of last December’s sold-out performances of the world premiere at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA) in New York City. The Hip Hop Nutcracker will make a stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre Saturday, Nov. 28 at 2 p.m.

 

The Hip Hop Nutcracker is directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the all-female hip-hop crew Decadancetheatre in Brooklyn. It is adapted to today’s New York by Mike Fitelson, executive director of UPCA – the work’s original producer – and includes hip-hop interludes remixed and reimagined by DJ Boo and violinist Filip Pogády.

For its stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 28, The Hip Hop Nutcracker features special guest MC Kurtis Blow, one of the founders and creators of recorded rap music.

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